A Christian college education comes with a price. But research suggests that every penny of that price may be worth avoiding the cost of the alternatives.
by Steve Henderson, Ed.D.
Leaving Faith Behind
A few years ago, George Fox University professor Gary Railsback, a fellow researcher, prepared an interesting study. Using his data, I determined that more than 52 percent of incoming freshmen who identify themselves as born-again upon entering a public university will either no longer identify themselves as born-again four years later or, even if they do still claim that identification, will not have attended any religious service in over a year. This means over half of our kids are reporting a rejection of family religious values if they attend a public university.
This pattern of rejection was similar at secular private colleges and much worse (63 percent) at Catholic colleges. Newer data show a similar rejection pattern across all types of institutions, except for students attending a purposefully Christian college. In fact, the rejection rate at Catholic institutions is now 70 percent. The bottom-line is this: if the past is a fair indication of the future, at least half and possibly over two-thirds of our kids will step away from their faith while attending non-Christian colleges and universities.
A recent press release on the ongoing National Study of College Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose offered some interesting information on students who are beginning their college years. While 79 percent of all freshmen believe in God, 69 percent pray, and 81 percent attend religious services at least occasionally, 57 percent question their religious beliefs, 52 percent disagree with their parents about religious matters and 65 percent feel distant from God. College students are asking deep questions about their faith. Unless they are at a Christian college, they may find themselves in an environment that is not conducive to providing supportive answers. Asking deep questions in such a situation can lead to confusion at best and, more likely, skepticism or outright rejection of family religious values.
A March 29, 2005, Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz, titled "Study Finds College Faculties a Most Liberal Lot," reports that most faculty at non-Christian colleges disdain Christianity, with 72 percent indicating they are liberal, 84 percent favoring abortion, and 67 percent indicating homosexuality is acceptable. In most cases, students reflect the values of college faculty they encounter in their upper division coursework. These faculty are typically the advisors and mentors of students. Certainly the above findings indicate that the answers and directions students receive from most faculty at these institutions will not be supportive of traditional morality and religious values.
Quantifying the Impact
Both my own study and Railsback's conclude that there are significant differences in religious commitment depending on the type or affiliation of the college attended. For my study, I examined the responses of nearly 16,000 students attending 133 different institutions. All students were measured as freshmen and then again at least three years later using a comparable survey instrument in cooperation with the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The findings of my study, although more specific than earlier studies, are generally consistent with prior research. In preparing this research, I reviewed over 1,000 articles, books, and studies. Although, as previously stated, there are exceptions to these trends, it is clear that the choice of a college does impact students' religious commitment. Here are the main findings:
1. The affiliation of the college attended does appear to be related to the student's overall change in religious commitment as well as to the students' adherence to the incoming religious preference. In other words, there is a correlation between the type of college students choose and what happens to their religious commitment during the college years. There is also a relationship between the type of college attended and whether the student continues in his or her family's religious tradition.
2. Students who choose to attend a non-affiliated independent institution (secular private), state, Presbyterian, and Catholic affiliated institutions appear to experience the largest declines in overall religious commitment. These institutions are listed in order of decline in religious commitment from the largest overall decline. Students who attend private, non-religious institutions show larger drops in religious commitment than any other type of college, even public institutions. This bears out the reality that, though most renowned secular private universities started with a religious commitment, many have become nearly antagonistic to faith.
3. Students who attend independent Protestant, Baptist and other Protestant affiliated institutions report the largest increases in overall religious commitment. These, again, are listed order of increases in religious commitment from the largest overall increase. Students who attend these kinds of institutions consistently report increases in all measures of religious commitment. This increase in religious commitment stands out especially when compared to the major decreases at secular private and public colleges. Those attending public versus independent-Protestant institutions, for example, experience nearly four times the drop in church attendance and fifteen times the drop in overall spirituality.
4. Students who attend institutions that are members of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU), when compared to those who attended non-member institutions, showed significant positive differences on almost all individual measures of religious commitment, as well as an overall increase in that commitment. Attending a CCCU school is clearly correlated to increases in nearly all measures of religious commitment. Member institutions are set apart from others by their adherence to Christian principles, broader liberal arts programs, and commitment to hiring only believers as full-time faculty and administrators. Students who attend these institutions are often exposed to chapels and other worship experiences that reinforce these values.
They also learn from (and are mentored by) faculty who exemplify these principles. Perhaps most important for students in this time of transition is that they attend, live, worship, and communicate with fellow students who endorse these same values. The differences in choosing a CCCU school versus a non- CCCU school are dramatic: one- fourth the drop in church attendance, one-seventh the drop in prayer and meditation, and nearly five times the increase in overall religious commitment.
5. A drop in religious service attendance was by far the greatest negative change for the population studied. There is a decrease in attendance of religious services across all students attending all types of colleges. Shifting from a possible parental expectation of attending all services and youth group meetings to a freedom of choice does offer an opportunity for students to shift to schedules more of their liking. However, the specifics are instructive. The smallest drop is for students attending Baptist institutions (followed by independent-Protestant colleges) and is comparable to the small drop at CCCU schools. Most authors agree that this one variable, church attendance, is the most important factor for measuring and predicting the current and long-term religious commitment of people of all ages.
6. In many cases, the more conservative the student's denominational background, the greater the change at no-affiliation private (secular) and public institutions. Comparatively speaking, the degree of change is most pronounced among students from a more conservative background who attend a public or a secular private institution. To put it another way, students from more conservative backgrounds change more than those from less-conservative denominations when confronted with the challenges of these institutions.
Most of the change in students' attitudes and behaviors takes place during the first year away from home. As discussed by Alyssa Bryant in an article in the Journal of College Student Development, students become significantly less religiously active during the first year of college. That this is the case should come as no surprise, as students, for the first time in their lives, are no longer under their parents' control and influence. This is also a time for students to begin thinking more on their own and for building a foundation for their life's direction.
Thus, being in an environment that includes both peer and faculty support for good decisions, in the first year of college especially, is one of the greatest benefits of attending a Christian college. In contrast, being in an environment wherein both peers and faculty are critical of if not hostile to Christian values and morals can make this first year a very difficult time for a struggling freshman.
The results of the research have led me to make several recommendations primarily to students and parents who are together considering lower priced alternatives to a Christian college education. I also have recommendations for pastors and other religious leaders.
This article, which was published in the March 2006 issue of Christianity Today, is reprinted with permission.